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Apart from the photo ops, arts barely register

Before the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney turned the first sod for its long-awaited $53 million building project last Wednesday, organisers were swamped with invitation acceptances -- not from media clamouring to report the moment but from politicians.

Four federal representatives and three state pollies jumped at the chance to form a conga line of hard hats with charming tartan-clad MCA director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor.

There must be an election looming.

Infrastructure Parliamentary Secretary Maxine McKew was a last-minute scratching but Arts Minister Peter Garrett, Infrastructure Minister Anthony Albanese, and the member for Sydney, Housing Minister Tanya Plibersek, lined up beside Lord Mayor and independent MP Clover Moore, Premier Kristina Keneally and NSW Arts Minister Virginia Judge.

Macgregor couldn't believe her luck. "I'm really thrilled we had all levels of government," she says.
Turning up to a mutually beneficial photo opportunity during an election campaign is one thing but accepting invitations to occasional shows and gallery visits appears to require a commitment of time and energy beyond the reach of most federal politicians.

Neither Julia Gillard nor Tony Abbot is known to have frequented shows.

The Australian contacted 20 major arts institutions and could not find a single instance of Abbott having visited a gallery or seen a performance, despite him being invited regularly, especially in the months since he was elected Opposition Leader.

Gillard has often attended the Australian Jazz Awards and, when education minister, met senior staff from some galleries and performing arts companies, who report that she was interested and sympathetic.

The director of Canberra's National Gallery of Australia, Ron Radford, says the Prime Minister's partner Tim Mathieson is a regular visitor to the NGA and she has visited too.

Gillard and Malcolm Turnbull both sat for portraits entered in the Art Gallery of NSW's Archibald Prize, the opening night of which each attended.

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd, despite being deluged with invitations, notoriously did not attend any live productions during his term, though he too was known to visit the Canberra gallery.

Since 2007 there has been a standing invitation from the National Portrait Gallery, of which Therese Rein was patron, to have their portrait painted for its collection. The NPG expects to continue the tradition that commenced with Janette Howard, of inviting the prime ministerial spouse to be its patron.

Mathieson's interest in art appears to recommend him well for the role.

The chairman of Bangarra Dance Theatre, former Democrats senator Aden Ridgeway, says he's never had any involvement with Gillard or Abbott through the arts. "I think that means it's a peripheral issue," he says.

Australia's Major Performing Arts Group's executive director Sue Donnelly, chimes in: "I think they are pressed for time and they may have a view it's not important."

Donnelly discounts the notion some political leaders avoid the arts so as to not appear elitist and middle class.

She argues doing so would be to misread the population, 97 per cent of whom Australia Council research has revealed engage with the arts on some level.

To say the arts have had a low profile during the federal political campaign is an understatement. A spokesman for Garrett explains the absence of Labor's arts policy with the statement that "we're only half way through the campaign", to which key industry folk respond that time is running out. The Coalition has avoided the issue despite the office of opposition arts spokesman Steve Ciobo having been deluged with requests. A spokesperson in his office expressed wonder at the number of media requests as though they were undoubtedly disproportionate to the level of community interest.

Donnelly says, "The arts is a major industry, we talk about innovation and creativity as key platforms in the 21st century so politicians showing engagement with arts shows leadership."

One flicker of federal political interest in the arts was evident a week ago when the fine art sector's Save Super Art campaign succeeded in extracting a promise from the government that should it be re-elected it would not ban art from self-managed superannuation funds as advocated by Jeremy Cooper's review of the superannuation sector.

That announcement came only after a persistent campaign that had culminated the night before in the call for a public rally. Labor quite possibly acceded to the campaign's demands after recalling the 10,000 people who this year converged on the streets of Melbourne in protest against state liquor laws that dissuaded pubs from hosting live music.

That rally and research published in March revealed Australians are passionate about the arts, a passion that is patently not reflected in Canberra.

Garrett regularly attends galleries, arts events and performances, especially in his home city of Sydney. His low-profile Gold Coast-based opposite number Ciobo professes to as well, but companies contacted by The Australian struggle to recall him having attended.

Turnbull is most often cited as the senior politician who displays an abiding knowledge of the arts. Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini says Turnbull is "genuinely interested in the arts and he has a real love for it".

General manager of Bell Shakespeare Chris Tooher says politicians need to frequent the arts: "They allocate public funds [so] it's in their interest to see how those funds are being put to use. It's also encouraging to have key public figures advocating for the work we do," he says.

Terracini, however, thinks it's a waste of time worrying about what key politicians think. "We all come from the wrong angle," he says. "If we're engaging with the community as a whole, then the community will tell the politicians what they want. [Arts companies] can have little effect if the community doesn't really want it."

Michaela Boland
From: The Australian
August 07, 2010 12:00AM